Travels in the History of Languedoc, Part Three: The Abbeys of the Corbiers

In the previous two posts, I focused upon towns who suffered siege, massacre, and occupation during the period of the Albigensian Crusade as a result of the Church’s desire for homogeneous orthodoxy and northern France’s desire for new territories. Not every region and site in southern France suffered during these times, however. On Wednesday I visited two abbeys in the Corbiérs who passed through the turbulent first half of the 13th century unscathed and have survived (in one form or another,) until the present day.

The 16th century clock-tower peeking through trees along the bank of the Orbieu river, with the houses of Lagrasse town at left.

The first abbey I visited, chronologically, sits in a pleasant spot across the river from the once-fortified town of Lagrasse. From a distance, the abbey’s presence is signalled by the great unfinished bell-tower built under the Abbot Phillipe de Levis at the opening of the 16th century. The origins of this foundation, fully rendered as the Abbey of Sainte-Marie d’Orbieu, though, are much more difficult to catch sight of.

The oldest documentation of an abbey here dates back to 779, but implies that a religious site existed long before. By 951, the abbey had received its first substantial donations of land, so that in the early 12th century, it headed a network of almost 100 churches, 10 monasteries, and vast tracts of land.

Timbered court (partially restored, I expect) of the 13th century abbot’s residence–now owned by the state.

This heritage of land management was broken by the French Revolution, however, which also resulted in the breaking up of the properties. Most of the oldest portions of the complex, including its dormitory, early abbot’s residence, functional buildings, and even the south transept of the church were passed into state ownership, where they remain today. Many of the newer portions, including the grand early modern abbot’s residence, the nave of the church, and the bell-tower, however, are occupied today by the Canons Regular of the Mother of God.

The abbot’s palace, in the private quarter of the abbey complex, with imposing neoclassical details. New styles of architecture were incorporated into the foundation as it grew and evolved.

Their presence highlights the great continuities at the abbey, which was continuously occupied from the 8th to the 18th centuries. The only trace of the mediaeval land ownership which brought wealth to the abbey and influence to its abbots (one of whom negotiated the submission of Carcassonne), however, is the garden laid by the monks upon mediaeval and early modern patterns.

The church tower and the engaging rounded exterior of the south transept, seen from the garden laid out by the current monks.

A living building with ruins at its heart, the Abbey of Lagrasse demonstrates how some religious foundations prospered despite the persecutions and warfare going on around them. Less than 30 minutes away by car, the neighbouring Abbey of Fontfroide shelters another survival from the early mediaeval past whose appearance owes much to its modern owners.

The Abbey of Fontfroide takes its name from a cold spring on the grounds that served as a destination for local pilgrims, and began life as a Benedictine house–that is, it followed the Rule of St Benedict. In 1151, though, it opted to join the international network of Cistercian houses and adopted the laybrother-monk structure of that order. The lay-brothers, drawn from the lower social orders, did the majority of labour in the abbey. The many functional buildings in which they lived their lives, however, were radically transformed into a dramatic courtyard in the 17th century.

The grand appearance of this courtyard obscures the declining of the abbey’s fortunes. With fewer laybrothers, their functional spaces were transformed into a monumental entrance.

Set apart from the laybrothers were the monks, usually of higher social standing and better educated, who remained sequestered in the more private parts of the abbey. Adhering to a strict schedule of prayers throughout the day, the monks would also have spent time in the well-preserved cloisters, which retain more of their mediaeval character.

The heavy columns and curved arches surrounding the cloister are in the Romanesque style, but have been altered to accommodate Gothic flourishes. The tower of the abbey church rises above.

Most spectacular of all the abbey spaces, however, is the church itself. Austere in the Cistercian style, it’s vault rises to a height of 23 meters and its heavy columns create a solemn space. Originally, the stone cavity of the nave would have been split by a wooden screen to separate the monks from the lay-brothers. Only the most important lay and ecclesiastical visitors would be welcome into this private devotional space, with pilgrims confined to the smaller chapel by the entrance.

The high vaults of the abbey church, lit by the light through 20th century stained glass windows. These would originally have been clear glass, in accordance with Cistercian attitudes towards ornamentation.

Unlike Lagrasse, however, the Abbey of Fontfroide reached its peak early in life, and sharply declined in the 14th century when the Black Death decimated its population. With the number of monks greatly reduced and the number of lay-brothers declining, the abbey no longer wielded the great influence which had allowed it to establish daughter houses in Spain in the 12th century.

Between 1789 and 1858, there were no monks in the abbey, and the last few stragglers left in 1901. Since 1908, the abbey has been in private hands, managed in conjunction with a winery and rentals for tourists.

The rose garden, planted by the current owners of Fontfroide on the grounds of the mediaeval cemetery, with the church at left.

Both abbeys, however, provide the stillness and the peace of contemplation around which they were founded, and which they upheld despite centuries of adverse conditions and turbulent local politics.

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6 thoughts on “Travels in the History of Languedoc, Part Three: The Abbeys of the Corbiers

  1. This is a great post, thankyou for writing it and taking such expressive pictures. La Grasse is well-known to me as a landholder, and temporary superior to many of the monasteries whose documents I work with, but I hadn’t realised that it was also, well,so widely spread in time. Your photo makes the abbey church tower look huge; I feel I must go now so as to get the wider perspective…

    • Thanks so much, I’m very glad you enjoyed it. Lagrasse was one of the most beautiful places that we visited, and very interesting. I hadn’t realised, however, that so many of their daughter-houses were in Spanish territory.
      The church tower was, in fact, huge, and seems to have been the grand vision of a single determined abbot. I would definitely recommend a visit! It certainly gave me a very good sense of what the largest-scale ecclesiastical land-holding could mean in the region–and it was beautiful to boot.

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